Air raid siren to roar this weekend

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Military vehicle show features working siren

The Cold War will be in the forefront at a historic vehicle show in Sturgeon County this weekend.

The Military Vehicle Preservation Association is holding an exhibit of historic military vehicles today and tomorrow at the Alberta Railway Museum northeast of the Edmonton Garrison.

This is the association’s first annual show at the museum, and it took four years to organize, said Edmonton member Dave Dickie. The show is meant to celebrate both Canada’s 150th and the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.

About 20 restored military vehicles are expected at the show, some of which may be from St. Albert. (Local historian Reg Hodgson had planned to bring his restored 1942 GMC 6×6 cargo truck to the show, but as of press time said he might have to cancel.)

While there won’t be any 150-year-old military vehicles at the show (those would have been horses and wagons), there will be classic trains, Dickie said. Such vehicles helped move Canadian troops and material to the front lines throughout the last century, with the rail spur at the museum site once connecting to the Edmonton Garrison.

Doomsday wail

The group has teamed up with the Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association (of which Dickie is the president) to bring another wartime artifact to life at the show: an air raid siren, which they will set off at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

Air raid sirens were posted throughout Canada in the 1950s due to the threat of attack by the Soviet Union, Dickie said. Should the bombs start dropping, emergency officials could trigger “the most frightening wail tone that any Canadian has ever experienced” from the sirens to tell people to duck and cover.

But as Canada was never actually attacked, the sirens were for decades used to signal curfews or summon volunteer fire departments. Siren operators would sound different tones with the alarms to indicate different crises, Dickie said.

St. Albert’s air raid siren was initially placed near the medical centre on Taché Street, reports former city resident Roger Belley. Local historians say it later moved to near the United Church on Green Grove Drive. It was removed sometime in the 1990s.

St. Albert historian Anne Marie Venne said the siren would go off every day to signal curfew when she was growing up here in the 1940s and 1950s.

“Even if you were next door, you ran like crazy to get home.”

While many today consider the sound of the siren terrifying, Venne said back in the day you got so used to it that it didn’t really bother anyone.

Unlike today’s digital sirens, the air raid ones were all mechanical, said Fred Armbruster, founder of the Canadian Civil Defence Museum Association. Rotors would suck air into the front and blow it out through holes in the side that opened and closed as the rotors turned, chopping the air and creating the dreadful sound.

Most of the ones in Canada had 10 holes on one side and 12 on the other, Armbruster said. Some were directional megaphones, while others were omni-directional models that resembled mailboxes. The quietest models could crank out 110 decibels (about as loud as a canning plant) at 100 feet.

The sirens were triggered by telephone, which made for a lot of false alarms in some districts, Armbruster said.

“They could go off any time simply by somebody dialling the wrong phone number.”

While most of Canada’s sirens were dismantled in the 1990s, some communities (such as Cold Lake) still have them, Dickie said. Onoway still tests its siren every year. The ones he’ll have at the show this weekend were scavenged from Spruce Grove, Camrose and Wetaskiwin.

The show is free with admission to the railway museum, which is about $7 and is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. this weekend at 24215 – 34 St. in Edmonton. Military members get in free.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.